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How Illinois schools put thousands of children in seclusion

Hundreds of Illinois schools in 2017 and 2018 were secluding children in isolation rooms at alarming rates and often for reasons that violated the law, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica found. At least 20,000 children were put in isolation during that time frame, many with emotional and behavioral disabilities. ProPublica reporter Jodi Cohen joins Hari Sreenivasan with more.

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  • Alison Stewart:

    In public schools across the state of Illinois, the use of, quote, "isolated time-out" was allowed of students allegedly posed a threat to themselves or others. They were detained in "quiet rooms." But a yearlong investigation by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune found that this practice was regularly used for minor school incidents, sometimes on children as young as five years old. For context, incidents included not doing homework or spilling milk.

    Jodi Cohen is reporter for ProPublica Illinois, and is one of the reporters behind the Quiet Rooms investigation. She recently spoke with Hari Sreenivasan about her findings.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, Jodi, what is the practice of seclusion and what happens in Illinois?

  • Jodi Cohen:

    So in Illinois and in other places around the country, there are schools where students are taken to isolated spaces: seclusion rooms. Sometimes they're called quiet rooms or reflection rooms or reset rooms. Staff put them there and they shut the door.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    OK. Now, you know, some parents are going to say, well, what's so wrong about a timeout when somebody is misbehaving and they're going to disrupt the whole class? Isn't it good to get somebody out of that environment?

  • Jodi Cohen:

    So just to be clear, this is not a "time out" where a parent would go and say, 'you need a time out.' Isolated timeout, as it's called in Illinois, is in the law. It's a technique that can be used if a student is a danger to themselves, another student, a staff member.

    But what we found in Illinois was that isolated timeout was being used for reasons that did not have to do with safety, that students were being put in seclusion when they were disruptive, when they were not following rules, when they were not complying.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Was this happening in some places more than others?

  • Jodi Cohen:

    What we found was it was happening all around the state. We ultimately documented more than twenty thousand incidents of seclusion in a school year, plus a little bit more of the next school year, all over Illinois: traditional school districts and special education cooperatives.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    OK. In some of those special education cooperatives, you have several different stories of what some of these children do to themselves in these rooms. You talk about an autistic boy named Jace. Tell me what happened there.

  • Jodi Cohen:

    So we saw Jace was repeatedly put in the quiet rooms at his school. Sometimes it was because he didn't want to do his math work or he would leave the classroom. And he would cry, he would urinate, he would defecate. They would leave him in the room. We show one incident where he was, you know, crying in that room and he was saying, "I'm crying alone." And he was in there for hours.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And this was all documented, how?

  • Jodi Cohen:

    So in Illinois, when children were put in isolated timeout, staff members had to document what was happening during that seclusion: what led to the seclusion and how long the student was put in seclusion and what happened inside. So you would see in Jace's incident, for example, that would say 10:53. And it was quote him, "I'm crying alone." 10:55. It would go minute by minute. And we have those records from schools all across Illinois.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Did the parents of these students that entrusted their students to these institutions know that this was happening?

  • Jodi Cohen:

    So, the schools are required to tell parents within 24 hours to give them some sort of written notice. But what we found was that the notifications often would be put in the mail and in rural parts of Illinois, sometimes they would get there a week later and they wouldn't have that full incident report that I was just describing.

    Instead, they would get a form that had a checkmark. Like, your child was 'check' put in isolated timeout on this day. And that would be it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When you show Jace's mom a record of what he went through, what happened?

  • Jodi Cohen:

    So, Jace died last year. He died of a seizure in his sleep. He had epilepsy as well as autism. We showed her the reports and she just cried and cried. She said, I had no idea. They wrote all of this down. And she just said, why? Why didn't I know any of this?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So the concern here is that a lot of these places are using this kind of as a default response instead of a last resort?

  • Jodi Cohen:

    Yes. So for some schools, this became like their own, the only tool in their tool box, instead of a last resort. This was the result.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And you actually have diagrams of what these spaces look like. You were able to see some of this. Is there anything consistent about them? It seems like some of the rooms are padded and some of them are not. And kids are, what, banging their head against the wall in some cases?

  • Jodi Cohen:

    Some of them had blue padding. Others were really cement blocks, cinder blocks, tiles. They are very stark spaces. But most of them are very, very small, barren spaces.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    OK. So what's happened since your reporting?

  • Jodi Cohen:

    So we published this story on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Governor Pritzker, the Illinois governor, called the practice 'appalling' and ordered an immediate end to it. So the Illinois State Board of Education wrote emergency rules that went into effect immediately on Wednesday that banned all types of isolated seclusion, meaning that a child can never be in a room by him or herself. A trained adult has to be in the space and it can never be locked.

    What else happened this week as part of the emergency rules is now within 48 hours of a timeout, that has to be reported to the state. And the state has also ordered all school districts to send information from this current school year and the two prior school years to the state so that the state can have data and see where this practice was being used the most. And then take a look.

    The governor's office also filed complaints for every child named in the investigation that we did. And they are taking complaints from families now and they say they're going to investigate all of them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This is great work in Illinois. What about the rest of the country? How do the other states deal with this idea of secluding kids?

  • Jodi Cohen:

    So there are 19 states that banned some or all form of seclusion. Other states allow it in the same way Illinois does. There has been federal legislation introduced for many of the past sessions that would ban seclusion across the country. It's called Keeping All Students Safe Act, and there are plans to reintroduce it in the current Congress. So we'll see where that goes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Jodi Cohen of ProPublica, joining us from Chicago. Thanks so much.

  • Jodi Cohen:

    Thank you.

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